The Economic Costs of Divorce

A new Federal report has been released which puts marriage back on the public policy agenda. The report, To Have and To Hold: Strategies to Strengthen Marriage and Relationships, was released in June by the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs. The report is the result of a Senate inquiry launched in 1996. The Committee, Chaired by Kevin Andrews, held public hearings and took written submissions. The 347-page report is the outcome of this process.

The report examines a number of issues: the state of marriage and family in Australia; the causes of marriage breakdown; and proposals to prevent the situation from getting worse. The report highlights the huge impact which family breakdown is having on Australian society.

In financial terms alone, marriage breakdown is estimated to cost Australia $6 billion a year. At least $3 billion of this comes from the direct costs of marriage and family breakdown, while another $3 billion comes from indirect costs.

The report makes 55 recommendations. Given that the Federal Government spends just $3.5 million a year on education to prevent marriage breakdown, most of the recommendations have to do with more emphasis (including spending) on pre-marital education, marriage education, research and counselling, and the like.

The first recommendation, for example, reads as follows: “The Committee recommends that there be a national strategy to strengthen marital relationships through programs of preventative education.”

Most of the ensuing recommendations, although more specific, follow the lead of this first recommendation, looking at options for research into marriage and family life, premarital and marriage education, counselling and mediation issues.

The imprint of Kevin Andrews, who has long championed the institutions of marriage and family, is clearly seen in this report. Indeed, his wife Margaret Andrews edits Threshold, an important quarterly journal about marriage education. Thus the document is a welcome antidote to the many Government publications which either ignore or minimise marriage.

There are a few shortcomings however. None of the recommendations refers to the Family Law Act of 1975, and the destruction it brought with its no-fault divorce provisions.

Evidently, any thought of reforming, let alone rescinding, it was considered to be too hot a potato, so was ignored altogether. But given that this Act is one of the major root causes of our difficulties today, marriage will not be fully resurfaced and restored until it is dealt with.

Another area of concern is the Australian Institute of Family Studies. For nearly two decades now the Institute has been promoting pretty much the standard feminist line on most issues. The report does note that the AIFS did encounter some criticism. Dr Moira Eastman of the Australian Catholic University argued that the AIFS tended to ignore or neglect family life in their discussions.

She said they overlooked studies which show the importance of marriage, while emphasising studies which put marriage in a negative light. She also noted that since 85 per cent of child care for under 5-year-olds is done entirely by families, the make-up of the AIFS board should reflect this. (Report, p. 282)

The report recommends that although the AIFS is “a valuable research institute that should be preserved”, it should be more accountable to its original charter. Whether this modest recommendation will result in any much-needed change will remain to be seen.

All in all, the authors of this report are to be congratulated for putting marriage back on the front-burners, after so many years not just on the back burners, but out in the wilderness.

It is hoped that many of the recommendations will go ahead, and some preventive medicine be put in place. Surely in the area of marriage breakdown, prevention is better than cure.

Instead of spending $6 billion a year in picking up the pieces, why not put more resources into helping marriages work in the first place?

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